Throughout history there have been many African-Americans who have effected and transitioned the way we live life today. Many innovations in this world we use every day were created by black inventors. Two weeks ago I was sitting one late night in an IHOP reading the last parts of Dan Chamas’ The Big Payback: History of Business in Hip Hop. There was group of early 20 year olds who I assumed had just finished a night out kickin’ it and one of the brothas asked me what the book was all about. I went to explain a little about the book. He then said something that made me pause. He says “Hip Hop has to be one of the biggest things black people have created.”
I paused and thought about it. The way the game has changed many young people (and old too) haven’t be sat down and explained how many things black people have contributed to society besides wicked jump shot and entertainment. I admittedly went into “soapbox” mode and tried to explain a few things about black innovations in society. I wanted in a way they could understand maybe not view it as information not relevant to them.
I decided then that I needed to write another installment of Reversing a Culture of Ignorance that would highlight some black people who made inventions that changed not only American society but the world at large.
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848, and was the youngest of five children .George Latimer(Lewis Father) had been the slave of James B. Gray of Virginia. George Latimer ran away to freedom in Trenton, New Jersey in October,1842, along with his wife Rebecca, who had been the slave of another man. When Gray, the owner, appeared in Boston to take them back to Virginia, it became a noted case in the movement for abolition of slavery, gaining the involvement of such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for the freedom of George Latimer.Lewis Latimer joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 on September 16, 1863, and served as a Landsman on the USS Massasoit. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use a set square, ruler, and other tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1872.
Lewis Latimer enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15 by forging the age on his birth certificate. Upon the completion of his military service, Lewis Latimer returned to Boston, Massachusetts where he was employed by the patent solicitors Crosby & Gould.
While working in the office Lewis began the study of drafting and eventually became their head draftsmen. During his employment with Crosby & Gould, Latimer drafted the patent drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the telephone, spending long nights with the inventor. Bell rushed his patent application to the patent office mere hours ahead of the competition and won the patent rights to the telephone with the help of Latimer.
Hiram S. Maxim (founder of the U.S. Electric Light Company of Bridgeport, CN, and the inventor of the Maxim machine gun) hired Lewis Latimer as an assistant manager and draftsman. Latimer’s talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. In 1881, he supervised the installation of the electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
Lewis Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison (who he started working for in 1884) and as such was the star witness in Edison’s infringement suits. Lewis Latimer was the only African American member of the twenty-four “Edison Principles“, Thomas Edison’s engineering division of the Edison Company. Latimer also co-authored a book on electricity published in 1890 called, “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”
The son of former slaves, Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4, 1877. His early childhood was spent attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. While still a teenager, he left Kentucky and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of opportunity.
On July 25, 1916, Garrett Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue 32 men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. Morgan and a team of volunteers donned the new “gas masks” and went to the rescue. After the rescue, Morgan’s company received requests from fire departments around the country who wished to purchase the new masks. The Morgan gas mask was later refined for use by U.S. Army during World War I. In 1914, Garrett Morgan was awarded a patent for a Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. Two years later, a refined model of his early gas mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety, and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers shortly before the turn of the century. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and with it American consumers began to discover the adventures of the open road. In the early years of the 20th century it was not uncommon for bicycles, animal-powered wagons, and new gasoline-powered motor vehicles to share the same streets and roadways with pedestrians. Accidents were frequent. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Garrett Morgan took his turn at inventing a traffic signal. Other inventors had experimented with, marketed, and even patented traffic signals, however, Garrett Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for an inexpensive to produce traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Garrett Morgan also had his invention patented in Great Britain and Canada. Garrett Morgan stated in his patent for the traffic signal, “This invention relates to traffic signals, and particularly to those which are adapted to be positioned adjacent the intersection of two or more streets and are manually operable for directing the flow of traffic… In addition, my invention contemplates the provision of a signal which may be readily and cheaply manufactured.”
The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. This “third position” halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely.
Garrett Morgan’s hand-cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red, yellow, and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world. The inventor sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. Shortly before his death in 1963, Garrett Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.
Elijah J. McCoy was born free in 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred (Goins) McCoy, who were African American. They were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via helpers through the Underground Railroad. In 1847, the family returned to the US, settling in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
At age 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland for an apprenticeship and study. After some years, he was certified in Scotland as a mechanical engineer.
In Michigan, McCoy could find work only as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, McCoy did his own higher skilled work, developing improvements and inventions. He invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” (U.S. Patent 129,843).
Similar automatic oilers had been patented previously; one is the displacement lubricator, which had already attained widespread use and whose technological descendants continued to be widely used into the 20th century. Lubricators were a boon for railroads, as they enabled trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance.
McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones; 50 of his patents dealt with lubricating systems. After the turn of the century, he attracted notice among his African-American contemporaries. Booker T. Washington in Story of the Negro (1909) recognized him as having produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time. This creativity gave McCoy a heroic status in the African-American community that has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents, mostly related to lubrication, but also including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. Lubricators with the McCoy name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career. He formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his works.
Historians have not agreed on the importance of McCoy’s contribution to the field of lubrication. He is credited in some biographical sketches with revolutionizing the railroad or machine industries with his devices. Early twentieth-century lubrication literature barely mentions him; for example, his name is absent from E. L. Ahrons’ Lubrication of Locomotives (1922), which does identify several other early pioneers and companies of the field.
The popular expression “The real McCoy,” was first known to be published in Canada in 1881. In James S. Bond’s The Rise and Fall of the “Union club”: or, Boy life in Canada, a character says, “By jingo! yes; so it will be. It’s the ‘real McCoy,’ as Jim Hicks says. Nobody but a devil can find us there.”
This expression, typically used to mean the real thing, has been associated with Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention. One theory is that railroad engineers’ looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name,and inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system”.
Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo (then Dutch Guyana, now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother a black Surinamese slave. He had some interest in mechanics in his native country, but his efforts at inventing a shoe-lasting machine began in the United States after a life of working in a machinery shop. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 19 after working as a sailor. By 1877, he spoke adequate English and had moved to Massachusetts.
In the early days of shoe making, shoes were made mainly by hand. For proper fit, the customer’s feet had to be duplicated in size and form by creating a stone or wooden mold called a “last” from which the shoes were sized and shaped. Since the greatest difficulty in shoe making was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper shoe, it required great skill to tack and sew the two components together. It was thought that such intricate work could only be done by skilled human hands. As a result, shoe lasters held great power over the shoe industry. They would hold work stop-pages without regard for their fellow workers’ desires, resulting in long periods of unemployment for them.
After a while, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a “hand laster”; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.
After five years of work, Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention in 1883. His machine could produce between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.He sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on his invention and not eating over long periods of time, he caught a cold which quickly developed into tuberculosis. His early death in Lynn, Massachusetts from tuberculosis meant he never saw the full profit of his invention. He died at age 37 on August 24, 1887.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s invention was perhaps “the most important invention for New England.” His invention was “the greatest forward step in the shoe industry,” according to the church bulletin of The First Church of Christ (the same church that took him as a member) as part of a commemoration held in 1967 in his honor. Yet, because of the color of his skin, he was not mentioned in the history books until recently.
Make sure you check out this week’s episode of the “Straight Outta Lo Cash” Radio Show. This week’s show “Welcome to Sweetie Pies” w/ guest and co-star of the show Jenae Wallick. You can also subscribe to the show on I-Tunes or listen on your Android, I-Phone, I-Pad or Black berry with Stitcher Radio.